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Rating 8 8

2017 Tata Hexa review, road test

30th Mar 2017 8:00 am

Tata throws everything it can at its new flagship in the quest to go upmarket.


  • Make : Tata
  • Model : Hexa

Tata Motors’ ongoing effort at brand reinvention started, in earnest, with the Tiago, a car that got the whole country to sit up and take notice again. The sales numbers back that up too, with an average of 5,000 units every month. It was quite an impressive feat – giving a mid-range hatchback a truly premium look and feel – something the brand was never previously known for.

However, the job at the other end of Tata’s model range was arguably a lot harder. When the car in question is a premium SUV costing Rs 12-18 lakh, expectations are a fair bit higher, and the erstwhile Aria never managed to pull it off. Under the skin, it had the right hardware –
the then-new ‘X2’ platform’s hydroformed ladder-frame chassis, a robust suspension that offered superb comfort and stability, and even four-wheel drive. But it looked too much like an MPV and lacked a premium feel, which is all too important at this price point.

The Aria has been succeeded by this, the Hexa, and it tackles those problems head on. It looks appropriately rugged and the interiors are on a new level for Tata, while the tough X2 underpinnings have been retained and given a makeover. Additionally, apart from just the feel-good factor and the styling, Tata says it drives like a proper SUV now – at least the top-spec manual version does, which gets 4x4 and a set of drive modes to choose from. So, the question we’re here to answer is, does the Hexa have what it takes to stand tall in the competitive premium SUV segment, and in doing so, can it leave us as impressed as its little sibling, the Tiago, did last year.

Considering one of the Aria’s biggest failings was its design – specifically its MPV-like shape and dull styling – you can bet this has been a huge focus with the Hexa. There was no real way to escape the shape, which still looks a bit too ‘mono-volume’ and van-like, but a lot has been done to disguise it, thanks to what Tata calls its ‘Impact’ design language.

For one, the bonnet line has been raised and the grille made more upright, thanks to a new clamshell lid. The swept-back projector headlamps still remain but now appear further inset, which gives the sense that the bonnet is taller and longer (and thereby more SUV-like) than it actually is. The grille itself uses a nice, complex pattern, and there’s a second, wider honeycomb mesh on the lower air dam. It’s nice to see that Tata hasn’t succumbed to the trend of just throwing chrome at the front of the car (there’s only a thin band of it below the grille) and the gloss black finish looks rather classy. Finally, there are the fog lamp housings which have an aggressive shape and also hold a strip of daytime running lamps.

In profile is where it resembles the Aria the most. The glass house is virtually the same, as are the wing mirrors, but what’s new and really adds character are the grey cladding running along the base of the doors and the blacked-out pillars that give the impression of a ‘floating’ roof. There’s also a nice band of chrome along the base of the windows that kicks in a shark fin at the C-pillar with the word Hexa embossed on it. Then, of course, there are the superb, five-spoke, brushed metal, 19-inch alloy wheels. But while they look great in profile, they appear a tad sunken in under the swollen wheel arches; a wider track would have really helped the overall stance.

The rear is perhaps the Hexa’s weakest angle, what with its upright tailgate and square shapes. Yes, the old-school, Tata-signature ‘Christmas tree’ vertical tail-lamps are gone, and in their place are more contemporary horizontal units with LED elements, but they still don’t look all that interesting. Livening things up, though, are the thick chrome strip between them, and lower down, the rear bumper whose hexagonal exhaust tips and boomerang-shaped reflectors look quite butch.

This is a proper SUV, and you’ll know that from its body-on-frame chassis and the hike you’ll have to make to get into its cabin. The X2 platform is shared not just with the Aria but with the Safari Storme as well. This chassis may be stronger and lighter than the original Safari’s but the Hexa is far from featherweight; the fully loaded manual 4x4 version tips the scales at a hefty 2.3 tonne, and as you’ll see later, that has an impact on the way it drives. It does, however, get variable-rate dampers that work mechanically to alter the ride quality depending on the speed and surface.

The automatic version uses a six-speed torque-converter automatic gearbox designed by General Motors and is available only with two-wheel drive. The manual, a new six-speed unit, is Tata Motors’ very own G85 gearbox that debuted in the Storme Varicor 400 and is available with the on-demand four-wheel drive.

Let’s first talk about what’s changed the least on the inside – the space. It’s a big car so it has a big room, right? Well, not quite. Its beefy body-on-frame construction eats up a lot of space when compared to a similarly-sized SUV with a monocoque chassis. Still, there’s more than ample room for five; it’s just that the last row is best for two people only. Boot space is surprisingly good with all the seats in place; you could get a mid-size suitcase in here, although you will have to haul it high up over the tall sill.

Similarly, access to the cabin is quite a climb up and across the wide door sills. On to the seats, and at the front, you’ll be impressed at how well Tata has crafted the big chairs. The contrast-stitched faux leather feels suitably rich. The cushioning, which uses multi-density foam, is a touch too firm but has the bolstering just where you need it. Our only small grouse is the ‘lump’ around the H-point of the seat which, rather than adding to the support, feels like you’ve sat on your mobile phone. The thick A-pillar can initially cause a blind spot but you learn to look around it. The car’s size and the high driving position can be a little overwhelming until you get used to it.

If you want to replicate the comfort of the front seats in the middle row, you can do so on the top-spec XT trims of the Hexa with its two individual chairs. The only downside of these, apart from reducing the seating capacity to six, is that they don’t tumble forward and this limits maximum boot space; also, it’s easier to just walk between them to access the back row. A conventional split-folding bench comes as standard, but even here, accessing the third row isn’t easy. It has to be slid all the way back to tumble forward properly, and then too its immense weight makes it quite a task. Moreover, the Hexa’s huge rear wheel arches make access tricky, to begin with. Still, when in place, even the bench seat is really comfortable, supportive and spacious, although the middle passenger has a large central AC console to deal with. What does give you that ‘executive’ feeling in the middle row is the window shade that can be raised to keep the heat out quite effectively.

Finally, the third row – it’s quite a comfy place for two. The high floor chassis means you sit a bit knees-up of course, but it’s not as bad as some other ladder-frame SUVs. The advantage of the MPV-like squared-off rear is that head and shoulder room isn’t compromised in the third row. In fact, you can even recline the backrest, and there are also adjustable headrests. There are, of course, air-con vents for all three rows, but the blower is really quite loud, and when fully cranked up it, can overpower even the engine noise.

So, space and comfort are a highlight in the Hexa but you’ll agree that what really wows you about the interior is the quality of materials. It’s on a level thus far unseen from Tata Motors, and for once has a design to match. The dashboard isn’t a dull collection of flat surfaces anymore. The central stack has a variety of colours, textures and surfaces; here too, like with the exterior, excessive chrome has been substituted with other finishes, like piano black and dull grey plastics. Panel gaps are impressively few and even so, the dark colour scheme helps conceal them. The quality of the switchgear is also rather good (there are even knurled knobs and door locks), apart from a few places like the steering control buttons which feel tiny and fiddly to use. The upper glove box also has a terribly tricky-to-use unlock button for its latch.

What is quite an annoyance, though, is the prioritisation of storage spaces in the cabin. Sure, there are generous pockets with bottle holders in every door, and though individually not very big, the dual glove boxes together provide sufficient storage; if you’re in the driver’s seat, you’ll be left wanting. There is just one cup holder and a recess under the central armrest that’s much smaller than you think. So your phone, iPod, wallet, toll tickets and a cup of coffee are all vying for the same tiny spot. Also, there’s no room for a dead pedal in the manual version, so you have no place to rest your clutch foot.

Tata Motors has tried to make sure this car is equipped to a level befitting its price and segment, and you get a lot of things you’d have once never dreamed of from the brand. The 10-speaker JBL sound system is a standout and sounds superb no matter where you’re sat. There’s also ambient cabin lighting with eight colours to choose from, faux-leather upholstery, single-zone auto climate control, cruise control, heated wing mirrors, a cooled glovebox, automatic headlamps and automatic wipers. However, it’s not perfect. The infotainment screen is small and sluggish (see box), the satnav requires an app on your phone and, most of all, there’s no sunroof, which is a much sought-after feature that rivals do offer. On the safety front, top-spec Hexas do offer six airbags, as well as ABS, EBD, ESP and traction control, and also hill descent control and hill hold.

No big surprise when it comes to the engine. It’s the latest version of Tata’s 2.2-litre, four-cylinder turbo-diesel called the Varicor 400 (owing to its new Honeywell-sourced variable-geometry turbo and 400Nm of torque), which we’ve already seen on the top variant of the Safari Storme.

Fire it up and the Hexa’s relative refinement is literally music to your ears. There is a bit of murmur at idle for sure, but it’s not the boom you’d expect. Vibrations too are impressively contained, save for a little bit through the gear lever. The noise does swell up as the revs climb, but it’s only beyond 3,500rpm that it really sounds harsh, by which time you’ll have likely shifted up already.

The engine is surprisingly responsive off the line and does its best work before 3,000rpm. In fact, this takes some getting used to in both the manual and the automatic versions. In the manual, you have to account for the rather snappy clutch, whose pedal is not very progressive, so it often jerks and leaps off the line. Couple this with the heavy gearshift action and long, wide throws for the lever, and changing gear becomes a tiring task you’d rather avoid. There’s also no safety lock on the reverse gear, something that’s almost mandatory on six-speed manual gearboxes, so you have to be careful when you’re trying to engage sixth.

Thankfully, owing to the strong torque reserves of this motor, you can easily leave the Hexa in second, third or fourth and get through most everyday driving situations. Overtaking too is a breeze and very rarely needs a downshift.

In fact, for its size and weight, roll-on acceleration is not too bad, taking 12.72sec to do 40-100kph in fourth gear, and 10.83sec for 20-80kph in third, and that’s likely to do with the Hexa’s really strong mid-range. However, because of how tricky it is to launch smoothly and its jerkiness off the line, the 0-100kph time is a less-than-impressive 14.21sec – quite a bit slower than the competition.

Driving the automatic is an altogether nicer experience. The gearbox is really impressive with how smoothly and seamlessly it gets its job done in most circumstances, whisking you from gear to gear at no more than 2,000rpm if you tread lightly on the throttle. Like the manual, however, it’s when setting off and at really slow speeds that it falters. The tremendous pep from the motor means it overreacts and often shifts down unnecessarily with the lightest tap of your toe, only to return to the same gear moments later. There are no paddles but it’s sufficiently accommodating to taps on the lever for a car like this. It’s also significantly quicker than the manual version, with 0-100kph being despatched in 12.28sec and kick down times of 7.44sec and 9.73sec for 20-80kph and 40-100kph, respectively.

Since the launch of the Zest, Tata has been big on offering its new cars with driving modes that alter the engine’s performance and even the air conditioner to suit your needs. With the Hexa, that has reached a new level. Controlled by an upmarket-looking rotary knob, the ‘Super Drive Modes’ offered on the 4x4 manual let you choose between Comfort, Dynamic, Auto and Rough Road – the former two power just the rear wheels, while the latter two are AWD, sending torque to the front wheels when required. In practice, the differences between the modes are hard to discern, except Dynamic, where you can feel a distinct improvement in responsiveness. The automatic Hexa doesn’t have drive modes or the rotary knob, but you can tap the gear selector to the left for Sport mode. This too improves responses dramatically and will hold on to gears much longer when you kick down hard.

On the face of it, the Hexa has a number of things that could work against it on the dynamics front – its immense weight, ladder-frame chassis, long wheelbase, robust 4x4 system, 19-inch wheels – and those things considered, it really pulls off something impressive. The ride quality first; it is really good. You will get quite a bit of steering shock (although not the worst we’ve seen in this sort of car) that’s typical of ladder-frame SUVs when you hit a sharp bump. There’s an underlying firmness that you’re constantly aware of, but at very few points could you call it harsh or uncomfortable. The truth is, the Hexa’s variable-rate dampers do a phenomenal job of tackling various road conditions and keep things comfy in the cabin no matter what. It’s at its best out on the highway, with a supremely flat ride and very little movement. What you’ll also be impressed by is how silently it goes about its business; very little suspension, tyre and road noise makes it to the cabin.

Handling expectedly is not in the same league as an SUV with a monocoque chassis. The Hexa rolls around a lot, although, it has to be said that there is a lot of grip, especially in the 4x4 version. The bigger issue, however, is that it just feels too large and heavy for you to ever dream of pushing it even remotely hard around a corner. The hydraulic steering has a bit of slack at the centre position, and is really heavy at low speeds, making parking this big hulk quite a task. This is slightly less pronounced in the 4x2 version, likely because of the lack of front driveshafts. Also, the lack of reach adjustment for the steering is a bit annoying, and you do feel like the wheel is canted slightly forward on the whole.

With an SUV this big and heavy, not to mention all the robust drivetrain hardware underneath, fuel economy is not going to be a core strength, of course. In the 4x4 Manual, we managed a decent 10.1kpl in the city and a mere 13.1kpl on the highway. Despite being a fair bit lighter, the 4x2 Automatic was a bit lower down on the economy chart, with 9.1kpl in the city and 12kpl on the highway. The 60-litre fuel tank is not too bad, but for a big family SUV that’s likely to be taken out on road trips, a larger tank would have gone a long way in improving the cruising range.

Though the fuel computer offers all the requisite information on a nice colour screen, the distance-to-empty readout disappears when the tank goes into reserve, which is precisely when you need it the most.

The infotainment system in the Hexa is a mixed bag. On one hand, you have the JBL sound system with 10 speakers and 320W, which sounds rather good for this price point and lets you tailor the sound with a neat equaliser.

On the other hand, the touchscreen that controls it is small, slow and fiddly to use; luckily there’s also a rotary control knob and shortcut buttons.

There’s no navigation built in, but instead, you can get a companion app on your phone, which seems a bit counterintuitive. Additionally, this and the other two apps – one for remote control, the other for music – proved to be quite a drain on our smartphones’ batteries.

What's clear is that Tata's endeavour to reinvent itself wasn't just a flash in the pan. While the Tiago was almost an entirely new car, the Hexa is derived from an older model. But that doesn't make the result any less impressive. It's true, its biggest flaws are the ones inherited from the Aria - a heavy, cumbersome drive and ponderous handling, but then, it's also gifted with its strengths - generous space, superb ride quality (that's only gotten better) and proper go-anywhere ability; although if go-anywhere ability is not your priority, we'd recommend sticking to the 2WD automatic, as it's far superior to drive.
What it successfully adds to the formula is impressive refinement and an upmarket look and feel, inside and out, which is on a level that's unprecedented at Tata Motors. Unlike the Aria, this one is definitely worth the money. And hopefully, the quality and reliability issues that have lingered on in Tata cars are now a thing of the past. Tata is a brand that was always tethered to its 'cheap car' past and could never crack the premium segments. Now it finally has a product that can. 

PRICE Petrol Petrol AT Diesel Diesel AT Electric
Ex-showroom - Delhi Rs 17.49 / 17.40 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi) -
Warranty 3 years/1,00,000km -
ENGINE Petrol Petrol AT Diesel Diesel AT Electric
Fuel Type / Propulsion Diesel -
Engine Installation Front, longitudinal -
Type 4 cyls, 2179cc -
Bore/Stroke (mm) 85/96mm -
Compression Ratio 16:1 -
Valve Train 4 valves per cylinder, DOHC -
Max Power (hp @ rpm) 156hp at 4000rpm -
Max Torque (Nm @ rpm) 400Nm at 1700-2700rpm -
Power to Weight Ratio (hp/tonne) 68.42 / 71.72hp per tonne -
Torque to Weight Ratio (Nm/tonne) 175.43 / 183.9Nm per tonne -
TRANSMISSION Petrol Petrol AT Diesel Diesel AT Electric
Gearbox Type 6-speed manual/ 6-speed automatic -
BRAKING Petrol Petrol AT Diesel Diesel AT Electric
80 - 0 kph (mts, sec) 27.00m, 2.38 sec -
EFFICIENCY Petrol Petrol AT Diesel Diesel AT Electric
City (kpl) 10.1 / 9.1kpl -
Highway (kpl) 13.1 / 12kpl -
Tank size (lts) 60 litres -
ACCELERATION Petrol Petrol AT Diesel Diesel AT Electric
0 - 20 kph (sec) 1.29 / 0.82 sec -
0 - 40 kph (sec) 3.13 / 2.56 sec -
0 - 60 kph (sec) 5.91 / 4.83 sec -
0 - 80 kph (sec) 9.95 / 8.09 sec -
0 - 100 kph (sec) 14.21 / 12.28 sec -
0 - 120 kph (sec) 21.23 / 17.91 sec -
0 - 140 kph (sec) 31.01 / 26.41 sec -
20-80kph (sec) 10.83 / 7.44 sec -
40-100kph (sec) 12.72 / 9.73 sec -
MAX SPEED IN GEAR Petrol Petrol AT Diesel Diesel AT Electric
1st (kph @rpm) 36kph at 4700rpm / 38kph at 4200rpm -
2nd (kph @rpm) 71kph at 4900rpm / 66kph at 4300rpm -
3rd (kph @rpm) 112kph at 4700rpm / 99kph at 4200rpm -
4th (kph @rpm) 150kph at 4500rpm / 131kph at 4200rpm -
5th (kph @rpm) 166kph at 3900rpm / 170kph at 4000rpm -
6th (kph @rpm) 160kph at 3200rpm / 170kph at 3200rpm -
BODY Petrol Petrol AT Diesel Diesel AT Electric
Construction Five-door, SUV, ladder frame -
Weight (kg) 2280 / 2175kg -
Front Tyre 235/55 R19 -
Spare Tyre Full size -
SUSPENSION Petrol Petrol AT Diesel Diesel AT Electric
Front Independant double wishbone with coil springs -
Rear Independant, multilink with coil springs -
STEERING Petrol Petrol AT Diesel Diesel AT Electric
Type Rack and pinion -
Type of power assist Hydraulic -
Turning Circle Diameter (mts) 11.5m -
BRAKES Petrol Petrol AT Diesel Diesel AT Electric
Front Disc -
Rear Disc -
Dimensions Petrol Petrol AT Diesel Diesel AT Electric
Length 4788mm -
Width (mm) 1903mm -
Height 1791mm -
Wheel base 2850mm -
Ground Clearance (mm) 200mm -
Boot Capacity (Lts) 671 litres (max) -
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